Hattie Butterworth’s Blog
Cello Student. It’s just a big violin…
‘There is so much life and beauty still to uncover through listening and playing. I will never find it all in this lifetime, but to have experienced a small amount of it to such a degree, I believe, is such a wonderful component of faith.’
We couldn't do it without you...
Hattie Butterworth is a British cellist studying with Raphael Wallfisch at the Royal College of Music where she holds a RCM Foundation Scholarship supported by the RCM.
She has performed widely as a chamber musician, recitalist, orchestral musician and concerto soloist in venues including the London Charterhouse, St Peter’s Eaton Square, Southwark Cathedral and the Landsdowne Club in Mayfair. Hattie has been principal cello of the RCM Philharmonic orchestra most recently performed Bloch’s ‘From Jewish Life’ with the Hereford Youth Orchestra and Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations with the Bridgnorth Sinfonia in December 2018.
Hattie is a member of the award winning ‘Odora Trio’ who have performed widely throughout the UK and received coaching from musicians such as Adrian Brendel, Andrew West, Richard Lester and Daniel Tong as well as working with members of the Doric and Elias Quartets. Hattie is grateful to Help Musicians UK, the Agar Trust and the Bulmer Becket Foundation for supporting her studies.
In the video, The Odora Trio play Schubert’s Piano Trio No.1 in B flat at Southwark Cathedral on 1st May 2018.
We are delighted to welcome Hattie Butterworth as a contributor to Larsen Strings.
Sir Edward Elgar, c. 1900. PDM. Programme for the first formal concert of the City of Birmingham Orchestra, on 10 November 1920, which Elgar conducted. PDM.
The Centenary: Elgar’s Cello Concerto
Marking the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor feels like a very personal tribute for me. Other than the Pomp and Circumstance Marches I think the concerto is one of the first pieces of Elgar’s that I ever heard as a child. I remember it also being one of the first pieces to trigger a very raw and emotional response in me, igniting my passion for and interest in Elgar’s music. For a cellist, it may be one of the first major concertos you tackle, yet is appears to maintain its power, the technical challenges never failing to startle me.
Thinking about the concerto now, it is hard to relay confidently exactly how it has made its mark in the history of music. What is certain is that it is very unlike any of the other major cello concertos and provides a musician with so much scope for interpretation and an insight into Elgar’s inner life and musical evolution.
I remember first hearing someone play the concerto and feeling really confused about the first movement. Something about how the first subject just emerges seemingly from nothing after an arresting opening, into what becomes an expanding elegiac theme, just doesn’t feel conventional or comfortable. It is this discomfort that puts the concerto right at the centre of its context in a post-war 1919 world. Elgar had visited Germany almost twice every year for much of his adult life. The outbreak of the war and the personal ways in which it affected Elgar and his friends both at home and in Germany speaks to us through this great elegy. Following his burst of creativity with the chamber works of 1918, the cello concerto follows a similar lead of intensity but the piece feels, for me, on a similar level to that of the Dream of Gerontius. Elgar famously said ‘I cannot do any real work with the awful shadow over us’, referring to his stunted creativity in the early 20th century.
Just as Elgar had seen the Dream of Gerontius as ‘the best of me’, of the Cello Concerto he said, “If ever after I’m dead you hear someone whistling this tune on the Malvern Hills, don’t be alarmed. It’s only me.” The reference to the Malvern Hills (the area surrounding which he lived for much of his life) suggests that the cello concerto became a large part of his home and identity. There is something about both Gerontius and Cello Concerto that suggests they came from the same space of presence within Elgar. He was clearly aware of how each piece rang with potential for connection and in touch with the way in which each piece emerged from within him. Another observation is that neither cello concerto nor Dream of Gerontius lead towards the same heroic intentions as the Pomp and Circumstance marches, but are far more internal, elegiac and reflective.
It is well known that the Cello Concerto didn’t have the most glorious entry into the world. The premiere of 100 years ago, 27th October 1919 in the Queen’s Hall London with the London Symphony Orchestra and Felix Salmond was chronically under rehearsed and misunderstood by critics. Elgar made it clear that he didn’t view Salmond’s efforts at being attributed to the downfall and had no regret in entrusting the piece to him. The piece received only one performance in the year following the premiere, this unlike Elgar’s First Symphony for example, which had over 100 performances in the first year alone.
It wasn’t until over 10 years later, when the cellist Beatrice Harrison made a recording of the concerto with Elgar conducting, that the concerto was given its deserved light.
Elgar and Beatrice Harrison making an early recording of the concerto (1920). PDM.
Despite the rocky start, some of the greatest cellists of the 20th century gave the concerto voice after voice. The first recordings came from W.H.Squire, who recorded the piece in 1936 and a performance by Piatigorgsky in 1934 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Following this came momentous recordings by Casals and Tortelier, though Rostropovich himself stayed away from the piece. Explaining why in an interview he said, ‘It is about young love, so more suitable for a young person, like my student Jacqueline Du Pre who plays it much better than I would’. Time and time again her name comes up as being a revolutionary voice for the concerto. Jacqueline Du Pre made her first recording of the concerto with Sir John Barbirolli in 1965 at the age of 20 and went on to perform the piece to much acclaim across the world, giving the concerto a sonorous, powerful and simultaneously idiosyncratic voice.
For a performer, the concerto is asking the musician to put the self in a position of complete surrender, especially in the first movement. All parts are within a similar tonal range, creating such an intimate and powerful sonority, that when the cello soars far above with the dramatic E minor scale, we feel we are in the midst of something transcendental. I love how each movement is its own story; the second is such an exciting dialogue between cello, orchestra and, potentially, the natural world. I often imagine the life of some butterfly or bee, perhaps annoying Elgar whilst writing! The third a fourth really speak for themselves. I’ve often seen the third movement as in a similar emotionally arresting world as ‘Nimrod’ from the Enigma Variations. There are few words I can offer about this movement purely because what I feel is deeply internal and difficult to express- I would just urge you to listen to it, if you have time for no other movement. The fourth is like all movements rolled into one. If there were to be a movement hinting at the heroism present within some of Elgar’s previous writing it might be this one, though any hint on this level is quickly either brutalised or followed by an ironic look forward to the jazz and blues harmonies that were starting to emerge at the start of the 20’s.
“The concerto mourns the past, embraces the inevitability of change and holds within it a sense of timeless creative genius, the idea of a higher power working through Elgar.”
Today, Elgar’s Cello Concerto is considered a great masterpiece. Thanks to Sir John Barbirolli and Sir Malcolm Sargent championing Elgar’s presence through what was a period in which his music was viewed somewhat ‘old-fashioned’ in the wake of the great Russian composers of the 20th Century, such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev. The concerto mourns the past, embraces the inevitability of change and holds within it a sense of timeless creative genius, the idea of a higher power working through Elgar. It has invited so many different interpretations and will continue to do so, as is inevitable with a true masterpiece.
Fellow Larsen Artist, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, releases on January 10th a recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, with the London Symphony conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.
The work will be accompanied on his album by a number of pieces by composers including Julius Klengel, Gabriel Fauré, Ernst Bloch, as well as Frank Bridge’s Spring Song (with the Heath Quartet), and newly arranged versions of ‘Nimrod’ from Elgar’s Enigma Variations and the traditional songs Scarborough Fair and Blow the Wind Southerly (the latter inspired by Kathleen Ferrier’s 1949 Decca recording).
Pre-order a signed copy (Decca) via this link
The Sounds of Music
Although most of us have a relatively clear understanding about what the words ‘music’ and ‘therapy’ might mean separately, few people realise exactly what the practice of music therapy involves, and I am no exception. It’s not necessarily that I haven’t been given the opportunity to engage in this type of music outreach work, only that I have been somewhat apprehensive about what it might involve. This ignorance has lead to a fear of the unknown and, ultimately, avoidance of engaging in it altogether, convincing myself that I’m “just really not that type of person”.
Enough is enough at this stage as I have been inspired by the roles of music therapists for sometime, and have often heard amazing stories about the life changing effects of music on people with dementia, autism spectrum disorders and mental health conditions.The joy of music creates such wonderful purpose in my life, but I want to discover the ways in which music promotes positive change in the lives of vulnerable people.
Researching into the work of music therapists I begin to understand how music as a therapy is important on so many levels. The British Association for Music Therapists explains that, ‘because musical participation and response do not depend on the ability to speak music therapy is a particularly effective clinical intervention for people who have difficulty communicating verbally.’ For people affected by disability, illness or injury, working with music therapists can be life changing.
In wanting to understand this world of connection and care through music, I could think of no better person to talk to than my dear friend, mezzo-soprano Lowri Probert, who is at the end of her 3rd year studying for a BMus in voice at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.
Lowri has been volunteering at the Seashell Trust, a non-maintained special school based in Cheadle Hulme for the past year, as part of the RNCM’s Artist Development Professional Placement scheme. The Seashell Trust’s ‘Royal School Manchester’ is mixed, day and residential for children and young people aged between 2 and 19. All students at the school have complex learning difficulties combined with significant communication difficulties, including little or no oral language at all. Talking to Lowri about the school, it is clear that the placement has been far more than just an obligation for her.
“I honestly get so excited to go” (Lowri visited the school this past year at least twice each month) “of course I was really apprehensive at first, because of a fear of the unknown more than anything else, but as soon as I arrived I just felt so safe and cared for- all the staff are so lovely and really know what they’re doing”
Lowri made it clear to me that so much of what she learnt and experienced was ‘on the job’. It suggests that the reason music therapy might be hard to explain is because it is something that is experienced on a deep level by the therapist and child. Alongside this, the music work at the Seashell Trust is used as a social activity to promote connection and communication. The young people, who often are completely unable to communicate, find the experience of being in a group such a cornerstone of confidence.
The musical tasks that they’re encouraged to complete might be extremely simple, but the knowledge that through completing it they have increased their experience of life means that this is really celebrated.
Lowri talked to me a lot about the importance of group work with Gamelan instruments. Thursday mornings at the trust see small groups of children, usually no more than five or six, go into the ‘Gamelan Suite’,
“In the Gamelan room there are instruments such as gongs and bongos; anything that creates a lot of vibration. And we just sit and play the instruments for around 45 minutes. Sometimes the students will join in and sometimes they prefer to just sit and feel the resonance”
The benefits of Gamelan instruments have been widely documented. Their relaxing and therapeutic properties have been known to improve memory, concentration and coordination skills. The Open Arts Gamelan association highlight that they have never come across someone who is unable to play a Gamelan instrument! Lowri also made it clear to me how little pressure there is in this set up,
“I have learnt that each student is different, on some days they may be more up for engaging with creating sounds, and some days it’s just about being in the space with them- the music can be an outlet for their emotions in so many ways”
Lowri spoke to me about developing an understanding that the way a student behaves on some days is not indicative of who they are as a person. Music at the trust isn’t only used in a group situation, but sometimes for more a functional purpose. Lowri explained to me a situation in which a student was learning to cope with his new hearing aid and had been experiencing difficulties tolerating it.
“Me, along with Rosie on saxophone and Charlie on clarinet, went to a teaching room where the student was learning to tolerate his hearing aid. We played/sang in a key moving through different chords for him to listen to. As the session progressed he was leaving his hearing aid alone more and more because he was curious about all the sounds he could now hear.”
On a more personal level, I was interested to learn about the ways in which Lowri feels working in care has impacted her own life and the ways she views music and its industry. Her enthusiasm and love for the trust, its students and staff is infectious and has made me curious of how she feels it’s affected her.
“I always knew that I wanted to help people. Care work runs in my family and I’ve always wanted to find something that could combine my love of music and love of caring for people. Also working at the trust has just been so much fun, I honestly just spend so much time mucking about with the kids and having a good time- it really has felt just like being part of a family!”
In addition to this she explains how much it’s put her voice training at conservatoire into perspective, “When I’m in conservatoire I have a tendency to obsess over the little things, like whether my soft palate is high enough, or what mark is given in a certain assessment. Going to the Seashell Trust has brought music back to its root. Music is there to be enjoyed; it doesn’t have to be perfect all the time. Disabled children are so excited often just to hear their favourite song and sing it with you!
“Alongside this, the trust also invites musicians from Chetham’s School of Music and the Halle Orchestra to perform short pieces to the children, so they have the opportunity to experience music in full.”
Lowri’s freshness about the purpose of music is something I feel I need to hear daily. I always feel so stuck in negative thought patterns about scarcity in my playing. I never feel I offer enough, play well enough, practice enough or work hard enough. The work of the Seashell Trust can show us music as a transformative power, a means for connection and a valuable practice. We might worry about the type of trill or articulation we create, but all types music should be respected.
Lowri has shown me that through accepting all types of music and performance we open ourselves up to a greater sense of freedom in our own playing. I feel privileged to have been given an insight into the work of the Seashell Trust and the passion and honesty of Lowri. How amazing that talented musicians not only give their time to organisations such as this, but talk about how they would “jump at the chance of working with disabled people again”. I am not only inspired, but motivated to seek a space, both internally and externally, where all music making is accepted and appreciated as it is at the Seashell Trust.
Music and Mental Health
‘music shows us so much about the realities of healing- it shows us how great beauty comes out of darkness and how change is possible’.
I’ve spoken before on my blog about the struggles of performance anxiety and how it’s affected me. It’s been a long struggle of trial and error and I am far from complete presence and acceptance with performing. However, I have spoken little about what happens when the ‘normal’ levels of anxiety mutate into something more sinister and debilitating. It is a sadly common reality for some musicians, and especially students. I have experienced my fair share of anxiety issues manifesting in a variety of ways. It has been a large source of shame for me, but I feel it is time to speak about my experiences of healing and ways to access the help available.
When it comes to mental health in music colleges, it is far from surprising that people suffer as they do. College has shown me so much about the joy and creativity in performing but there is still an enormous pressure put on performances, marks, lessons and alongside that often teaching, rehearsing, organising concerts etc. Many of theses stresses cause us to enter a spiral of comparison, self-depreciation and a scarcity mind-set about the music we create. Sadly, the focus isn’t always on what you have to offer with your music now, but the ways in which your music isn’t good enough. Sometimes it moves from a rational perspective of how you can improve, to a focus on how what you create is inherently flawed. I’m aware that many people have a different experience to this, but music college can be a difficult place if you are an emotional person and care deeply about what you create, which most musicians are and do. Comparisons lead to a sense of ‘they can do it better, so why do I bother trying?’.
I have been blessed with wonderful friends at college and, although the comparison and competition isn’t an obvious component to the friendships, it can be difficult to accept the musician you are and the journey you have been on. I think we are entering a time in which competition and comparison is somewhat out of fashion, although this can mean people feel they can’t talk about how they’re really feeling. Everyone appears to be so settled and secure in what they create, and yet here you are lost in a sea of self-criticism that is hard to navigate.
I have certainly been the victim of such self-criticism and underhand competitiveness. It has been an enormous source of shame for me to admit the ways in which I pitch myself against others and the huge expectations I have of myself.
When I first came to college, I experienced an unprecedented degree of debilitating anxiety. This was exacerbated by the shame I had for feeling the way I did. Everyone else appeared to be dealing with the transition so smoothly but I was dying inside. This anxiety came in waves but came to a head in the winter of 2017/18 when I decided I needed to seek support to aid more permanent healing. I got in touch with BAPAM who then referred me to Help Musician’s UK where I found a therapist and have undergone a year of talking therapy to process the thought processes that had landed me so deep in anxiety and stress.
This past year has been such a transformational time for me. I have gone from getting by, to a sense of freedom, expression and creativity that I didn’t have before nor believed existed within me. I feel I can listen to the music I make now with a non-judgemental attitude and am on the road to accepting who I am, how I feel and the music I create. I have learnt that it is out of this acceptance that my creativity can grow. This aside, I know only too well how difficult it can be to find long term psychotherapy for students with mental health issues. The NHS provides a good service of short-term therapies, but these leave so many issues open. I want to ensure that as many musicians as possible can access the therapy I did through Help Musicians and want to support the charity in the wonderful things they do. In the next year, I am running the Oxford Half Marathon in October in aid of the charity and am in the process of planning various charity concerts and events. It feels like a natural progression from the deep pit of anxiety to focusing what I have learnt into supporting others that may be experiencing similar. No one should have to feel shame for suffering what is a hugely common reaction to the stress of being a musician. We are wonderful because of our sensitivity and emotional breadth and deserve help when in desperate need.
What is little spoken about is the amazing metaphor for healing and change music can give us. Music can provide such a wonderful basis for hope in this way. On mental health awareness day a few years ago, a musician on twitter put this in such beautiful words, ‘music shows us so much about the realities of healing- it shows us how great beauty comes out of darkness and how change is possible’. Music is both a healer and reflection of our own suffering. I like this a lot and think it could be why I play the cello.
Larsen Strings: please help Hattie to fund raise for Help Musicians UK via Just Giving: Giving back…
All the things besides- my love of Poetry
Studying music has produced such a myriad of opportunities and pathways but I’ve quickly discovered that it can also leave us with a great deal of empty time. Once practice and rehearsals are scheduled and the small amount of academic work is completed, the question arises, what to do with the ‘rest’ of the time?
I became fascinated with poetry during my GCSE’s. I loved how poets could weave so many different emotions and meanings into their words. I was so interested in how many different opinions people have about one particular poem and how some poems affect two people in completely different ways. For me, often greater than the meaning was the sound of poems.
We studied some poetry by E.E. Cummings and I completely fell in love with his sound and sentence structure. The meaning was clearer to me through the sound of the words, the way the words were positioned and the wonderful flow of enjambment.
For me poetry is so much a musical art form, although unlike in my music making, I have found myself so naturally drawn to writing my own poetry. The idea of composing a piece of music feels so unnatural and overwhelming to me, but when I write poetry it is often the most free and natural mode of expression. There is such a wonderful music in words that I love to explore, but the greatest part of writing my own poetry is that it is completely devoid of expectation or criticism. I am happy to accept that my poetry isn’t anything particularly special and knowing that brings an amazing joy to it. Poetry is something I love for the beauty of its sound and not for competition, comparison or expectation.
During the summer the past few years in London, I have attended many BBC Proms concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. I usually choose to prom in the gallery at the top of the hall as the mood is often much more relaxed. It was here that I first discovered writing poetry as a method of listening. Listening through words is such a different experience and a completely different style of listening. Occasionally either during or after a concert, I might write down a few phrases that felt inspired by the music. This can often blossom into a complete poem or maybe just remain as it is. Listening in this way can be telling as to the emotions and processes you have experienced.
Responding to music with words is such a wonderful way of capturing the moment and transmuting one experience into another.
Above everything else, poetry reminds me of the beauty in words and sounds. There is a poem for every mood and situation and because of this it is perhaps the ultimate method of communicating human experiences. It has given me so much perspective on my playing although provided an escape when the music world feels overwhelming. It is such a joy to create poetry and it has given a wonderful feeling of space and perspective to my life.
Scales in Proportion
‘I was fascinated to understand why she loved scales…’
I am struggling to recall the last time I dedicated more than 15 minutes of my practice time each day to scales. It has certainly been the case over the past few years that scales have become something I neglect other than when I absolutely have to. We all know that scales are good for us but I certainly struggle to ignite a love and creativity in something that has felt so dry and uninteresting for so many years. I’m interested in how they can enlighten us as to our technical struggles and how we can inject our own creativity to bring them to life!
I have one 8 year old student at the moment and we are working towards her grade 3 exam. It has been the most amazing surprise to me to discover that her favourite part of the preparation is the element we most commonly despise; scales. I’ll never forget the first time I talked about first playing some ‘boring’ scales and then can ‘do some fun pieces’. She was shocked to hear my reacting to scales in this way.
‘Boring scales? Scales are my favourite part!’
I was fascinated to understand why she loved scales and how her unbiased ear had taken such a liking to them. She explained how she ‘loves how nice they sound’ when they’re in tune. Her face lights up when she knows she has played a scale accurately and is so curious about keys and the different moods they convey. ‘They’re also so satisfying to hear’- I’m not sure I completely agree with her here, but there certainly is a satisfaction in running up and down the fingerboard and feeling the intonation physically lock into place.
I suddenly realised my mistake in assuming her relationship with scales. This dreaded part of every musician’s life has been passed down through teachers and generations to be the ‘boring’ and dry element to music making. Scales were explained to me from the start as an essential but frustrating and often terrifying endeavour.
I think a big part of why we have dried up scales in our mind is because we have lost curiosity in them. We often play them completely mindlessly with little attention to fine tuning intonation and variations in sound. Just as my student explained, scales are about sound, just as works of music are. We can search for and aim for the same high quality of sound that our pieces ask of us. Scales and studies can show us the exact points of weakness in our playing and highlight the issues we can face with intonation, sound quality, sound consistency and fluidity with the left hand. There are so many elements to play with and focus on here.
Why should our scale practice lack creativity? We can enjoy varying rhythms and keys, including scales using one string and one finger, alternating between major and minor and harmonic scales. I can identify my own weaknesses and tailor my practice accordingly much more efficiently than a scales book is able to.
I’m challenging myself to write a new scale routine this year with as much variation and interest as possible. Working from scale books is useful, but I feel that creating my own will help me discover my weaknesses and allow my scales to be a greater, more expressive part of my music making and my musical personality. I’d love to see other people rewrite scales in this way and even share with me parts of their warm up routine. Scales should set up the inspiration and creativity that we explore in our repertoire and I don’t think we should expect anything less.
Showing up and being seen
I have spoken on a few occasions before about performing and the anxieties that it inevitably brings. Being a ‘creative’ in any way, be it artist, dancer, musician, author means being exposed to criticism, self doubt and comparison. Most of our performance anxieties are a variation on a theme of ‘what will everyone think of me’ or ‘how will I accept myself when it goes wrong?’
The past few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting about my insecurities as a musician and performer. The last performance I gave had me so unwell with anxiety about the outcome that I now want to think more about where it all stems from through exploring my vulnerability.
I know that I am coming closer to a feeling of presence and joy in the moment of performing, but what about the extra baggage of fear and doubt I carry around for weeks before and my whole life?
During my quest for help with my insecurities I was searching around (as I inevitably do, usually at 1am) on YouTube and came across a speech about criticism by Dr Brene Brown. Brene is a researcher and author specialising in shame and vulnerability. She was referring to all creative people in her speech, but so much of what she said directly related to my insecurities as a musician. She spoke about how important the critical voices become to us if we are ‘in the arena’ as a creative.
We live to please these people, forget about the people in the audience that love us and sometimes avoid performing entirely if we know the critics are going to be there. Brene was explaining how we are totally within our right to care about what they think and we are always going to worry about them. However the most important part of performing, she explained, is the inevitable, showing up and being seen. If we are brave enough to put ourselves on the line and allow ourselves to fail, get kicked and be vulnerable, then we are set free.
Each time we show up on stage and have the courage to fail, we are witness to the music and not a slave to it. If we block this risk of failure, vulnerability, shame and fear, we also block our freedom, creativity, joy and success. When performing, we are there in the moment, no matter what happens we showed up and we were there. If we have the belief that we as a unique individual has something to say on stage at a specific moment in time, the anxiety about a critical voice diminishes. The critic wasn’t on the stage with you, you are the one with the courage and the faith to fail, and therefore simply by being there or ‘taking part’, we have won.
Discovering these words of Brene’s was so comforting to me. I understand how much credit I should give myself for showing up and being seen. Playing my instrument isn’t so difficult as it is to deal with criticism, failure and rejection. We risk all of this each time we perform. Everyone who puts themselves on the line creatively should realise how much it means simply to be seen.
Brene spoke about how much of what she’s learnt about criticism and fear came from a wonderful Theodore Roosevelt quote:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Less is More
Thinking About Whether ‘Less is More’ in Music
It often feels to me that there are some people in life who appear to do very little, yet are frequently very successful. There always appeared to be people at school who ‘hardly revised’ and still came out with top grades. The other end of the spectrum are those who often work hard for recognition or to feel a sense of accomplishment. Hard work makes us feel good about ourselves, but is it always giving us the musical fulfilment we want?
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how less work, less pressure and fewer hours practice can actually have a very positive effect, but how does this seemingly paradoxical idea actually work?
A natural place to begin in comparison appeared to me to be sports people. Athletes often speak about how central their mental preparation is before an event. Of course they have to prepare their bodies a huge amount, but how does the mental side work? Researching this was really fascinating. I’d never considered quite how similar a situation musicians and sports people are in. We have the same fears of failure and physical responses to stress. Sports psychologists talk about the many different mental preparation techniques that sports people do in order to perform at their best. These include motivation, arousal, self-talk, visualisation and mental rehearsal, goal setting and stress management.
The inverted U hypothesis is a theory in sports psychology that each person has an optimal state of ‘arousal’ at which they perform their best. For most people this is when they are feeling a medium amount of stress, arousal and anxiety- too much arousal/anxiety and too little arousal/anxiety will both cause the performance to be poorer. This is such a fascinating way in which sports people use their emotions for a positive effect. The resources I found online were so practical and spoke of ways in which each sports person learn which combination of emotions is optimum. Once the optimum combination is discovered, a coach tailors strategies to different individuals and subsequently the athletes learn how to reduce and increase certain emotions. In music we find it hard to accept our uncomfortable emotions. It’s so interesting to find how sports people take mental preparation so seriously and use negative emotions to their advantage. They have accepted that no matter how hard they work physically, performance is stressful and needs tailored management techniques.
Having a technical facility on any instrument means understanding how a more desirable sound is created though a relaxed approach, especially on a string instrument. Force is something we rarely need to use, as natural weight is sufficient. Alexander Technique is entirely based on the premise that there is an optimum balance and freedom of the body, allowing for a more sound command of our instrument. In this sense, less pressure and tension certainly translates to greater sound freedom and quality, but what about the amount of work we put into playing?
I’ve spoken before about how hours of practice are often worn as badges of honour, but is there sense in taking time away? I’ve certainly experienced huge benefits through this.
Yoyo Ma has spoken about how mastering music is more than learning technical skills, ‘…Some days I practice for hours, other days will just be a few minutes. Practicing is not only playing your instrument…’
We learn so much about our playing and the music we are studying if we take time away from practicing to take time exploring it from different angles. Less time practicing could mean more time learning about composers, or talking to others about how they may interpret a musical idea. It could also mean spending time walking in nature, journaling our ideas and just taking time away to ‘live’.
Focussing on our happiness and peace of mind in this way can only bring life to our music.
The work we put in only comes to life when we believe in it and believe in our abilities as musicians. We save ourselves a lot of time when we trust in the work we have done and the musicians we are. This belief can carry us through. How we feel about ourselves in music is just as important as the physical practicing.
We must hold onto the joy it brings us and the reasons we are working. Just as great sports people often speak of how mental preparation is the most important part, we must remember that we can’t neglect our insecurities. Less becomes more when we know what we are capable of, have faith in music’s power to connect people and trust our endeavours.
Thoughts on Managing Loneliness as a Musician
It occurs to me on a daily basis that my life as a musician is often an inherently lonely one. Simply in order to achieve a sound technical facility on any piece of music, so many hours of individual practice time are required. We come out of an audition we’re not happy with, we’re alone. Many hours are also spent travelling alone to dep for concert and attend courses with people we don’t know. It is easy to go for days without seeing people properly. Alongside this it is easy to feel suffocated and alone in rejection and failure. We see these as a given, a sacrifice we have to make, but the sacrifice should feel worth it and it often doesn’t.
Loneliness and aloneness are often documented as two different concepts. Being alone turns into loneliness as we feel alone in our struggling. When the inevitable ups and downs aren’t shared, mourned and celebrated, then we are alone. We come to realise we aren’t alone in our struggles when we see how many supportive and like minded people there are around us and share our experiences with them.
I often struggle the most with giving myself permission to take time off to talk and socialise. It’s not a natural priority for me a lot of the time. I’m convinced I will feel the greatest sense of achievement through individual, focused work. I am starting to see how often this hard work doesn’t pay off because of stress, personal expectation and criticism. To be alone all day creates a breeding ground for negative thoughts and beliefs, we get to a performance and joy isn’t present in the experience because we have lost ourselves and our confidence. I struggled a great deal in my first year of music college due to loneliness and anxiety. Much of this was down to adjusting to managing my own timetable. At school, social time is scheduled for you, but at college and especially in London, it can be difficult to make it a priority.
‘…we have to perform with others to achieve a sense of fulfilment.’
As I mentioned in my previous blog, much of my music making has been with my piano trio. Without them I don’t think I could survive. Rehearsing together is a wonderful and enriching experience that inspires me every day. It shows me we have to perform with others to achieve a sense of fulfilment. Nothing kills loneliness more than performing with other wonderful musicians, realising how worth it the practice is. Audiences so often respect how much time it takes to prepare a piece, and so often we don’t! We owe it to ourselves to perform and receive from the music community.
‘Strength is shown by sharing weakness…’
Being alone is something I think I will always struggle with, but I am only recently understanding how it doesn’t have to be lonely. Strength is shown by sharing weakness, I find myself constantly overwhelmed by how similar we all are in our struggles. Studying music is always going to have its ups and downs but we must trust that we are supported. We are often alone in a practice room, but never alone in suffering.
What Chamber Music Has Taught Us
It’s been almost two years since my piano trio and I fell together. Our violinist Sophie and I were close friends at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester and when the cellist in her trio at the Royal Academy of Music dropped out, I was asked to join. From the start we didn’t take things lightly, our first musical challenge being Tchaikovsky’s huge Piano Trio in A minor. Since then we’ve been on a huge journey the past few years and, though we’ve had our ups and downs during this time, trio has remained such a wonderful constant in my musical life. As many other things fluctuate and orchestral projects come and go, trio remains a weekly venture that I look forward to invariably.
I’ve spoken to my trio about their thoughts about our group and the wonderful form of chamber music. Our pianist, Songeun, makes the point of collaborative music making, “As a pianist, most of my hours spent playing the piano are by myself in a practice room, and, unless it’s a concerto, I am alone on stage without an accompanist. The fact I have others with me is a great reassurance.” She also spoke about how bouncing off two other musicians helps the analytical side of rehearsing, “It is easier to take the piece apart and listen to the harmony, as I am not having to do everything!”
This is such an interesting part of rehearsing together. There are three differing opinions and three perspectives on harmony, structure and emotional colour. We focus on aligning our thoughts about the music in rehearsal, but a lot of the life in the music comes during performance and, luckily, performing is becoming a more and more regular occurrence for us.
Musicians often talk about the disagreements that can surface in chamber music rehearsals as big characters with musical opinions battle it out for one overriding decision. Although we frequently disagree about many things in rehearsal, we try to play more than we talk and solve disagreements through trial and error. I think we have found chamber music to have brought us so much closer together, rather than divided us.Sophie told me how “chamber music allows you as a performer to bond and create relationships with other like minded people, expanding your musical breadth”.
Music college is so tough and it is so easy to feel in some type of competition with everyone, but a chamber music group is a collaborative effort towards a common goal and the competition diminishes. We try to be a support to each other in all aspect of life and seeing each other multiple times a week means they are probably the two musicians I work with most regularly.
Chamber music has inspired me to push myself in my solo playing. I have learned so many techniques and developed a totally different style of hearing. I feel I know what I want from my own playing much more because the others have taught me how to listen and react. Most of all, I think playing chamber music teaches us that chamber music is everywhere. From solo to concerto, there are always voices to react to and levels to uncover.
Trio has also provided us with the opportunity to travel and meet people. We love talking to our audiences after a concert and sometimes the feedback is so far from anything we’d expect. Music college can feel a very critical space, but reaching out and performing around the city and country, we meet people that our music has spoken to, people who are interested and excited about us.
Hearing about people’s experiences listening to our music makes it all so worthwhile and I am grateful everyday for the wonderful musicians I am lucky enough to call my friends.
Will We Ever Enjoy Practising?
Practice is often an unpopular word among music students like me. Sometimes, I must admit, we’d rather be doing anything else and will find any excuse to avoid it. The likes of Ray Chen and Anne-Sophie Mutter have also openly revealed their dislike of practice, and they’re not the only professionals that do. Practice can hold negative connotations from childhood, but why when we’ve already made the decision to devote our lives to music does the idea of practising still frustrate us so much?
Of course it’s largely about the physical effort and concentration required. It is no relaxing task to practice an instrument for hours a day, the idea of getting an instrument out of its case often being the worst part. Practice can seem overwhelming and unfulfilling if goals are big and time is short, which causes huge stress, causing us to flee from or procrastinate the situation.
Despite this, I must admit that I am not someone that has had to struggle a great deal in the past with motivation to practice. I started the cello shortly before turning 12, so a lot motivation came from myself as well as my parents. I was very ambitious from the start and became hyper aware of how behind I was with my playing. This drive and motivation built in a side to practice that is probably the most unhealthy and least spoken about- the obsessive practising.
If I was given a practice goal each day of, say, 4 hours from teachers, I would have to exceed it. I’d practice until the guilty feeling of not practising went away. It didn’t matter to me so much how I sounded or whether I was even enjoying it, so long as I felt I had worked hard. I know I wasn’t alone in this at music school. Hours of practice were like stamps of honour and I loved improving and impressing my teacher at each lesson. Although it helped me improve, it left me with a strange relationship with practice and a lack of enjoyment that forced me to think about the way I was practising.
Some practice techniques I enjoy :
If we were to see practice less like a regime with set hours and instead more in the moment, I think it could help us with motivation and enjoyment. Of course our practice goals (and a practice diary!) are important, but they often overwhelm us and make us frustrated. If we also learn to react to our sounds and search for ways to let our music speak much more spontaneously, we are more prepared for performance situations and our practice starts teaching us in small steps.
Some techniques that I enjoy the most incorporate interests from outside music that I enjoy, such as Instagram! If I feel a passage is suffering or I don’t know quite how to phrase it, I can set the task of recording it to upload to Instagram. This way I have an audience and am listening to my sound, excited to reach a higher level and share music with my followers. Recording in general makes one so much more aware and reactive both to sound and technique and allows you to become your own teacher.
I also love to practice in a room with a piano or keyboard so I can alternate between playing cello and piano. As well as playing jazz piano and movie soundtracks to pass the time, learning parts from the piano is probably the most interesting and motivating exercises I have found. I love to hear the harmonies on the piano and uncovering how the cello part fits in the sound. Practising sonatas and concertos solely from our instruments makes the leap up to fitting it with the score so much bigger. If the piano is part of our practice from the start, we start to see all pieces as chamber music and the music is much more interesting to pick apart.
I can’t stress enough how important it is for me to play to friends and colleagues as performance practice. It is a good intermediate stage between practising on your own and performing a recital.
Fellow musicians often hear what you are playing in a very different way and often the feedback can be so important, especially if they know the piece well. Playing to non-musicians is also really great practice as they are often non-judgemental audience, yet give us a performance experience where it is easier to take risks. We must remember that for the most part, it is for non-musicians that we are practising, it being mostly they that attend our concerts.
Practising is no good on its own. We have to perform regularly to set ourselves goals and see the rewards of our work and dedication. Hearing people’s reactions to our music is such a wonderful culmination of the practice we’ve done and suddenly it all feels worthwhile. Practice will often feel an unattractive task, but by finding some techniques that we really enjoy, we can lose ourselves in our work and (maybe) forget we’re even practising.
Thoughts On What Makes Our Favourite Music
It has only recently occurred to me quite how many pieces of music have had a profound effect on my life. Some are pieces that I have grown to love through practice and performance and others that, on the first hearing, I have found myself in a prodigious state of awe and wonder, almost beyond the ability to describe. These experiences with music provide a large part of what I see as my ‘spiritual life’, and through this comes the music which forms my identity.
The music closest to my heart creates a peace, some a deep serenity, some a joy, sadness etc. The way in which they move me is always different and often in ways, and with pieces, I would not expect. I am struck, however, by the comparatively small amount of the musical repertoire I have experienced to date. To think how many of these I keep so close to me feels both overwhelming and exciting.
There is so much life and beauty still to uncover through listening and playing. I will never find it all in this lifetime, but to have experienced a small amount of it to such a degree, I believe, is such a wonderful component of faith.
A list of pieces I have found most profound, also a suggested listening. I’m sure I have missed a lot from this list!
Elgar- ‘There Is Sweet Music’ part song
Schubert- Piano Sonata no.21 in B flat (opening 1st movement)
Brahms- violin concerto 1st movement 2nd subject
John Ireland- ‘the Hills’
Puccini- La Boheme, ‘Che gelida manina’
Schubert- Two cello Quintet 1st movement cello duet
Elgar- The Dream of Gerontius
Haydn- Piano trio no.44 1&3 movements
Bach- St Matthew Passion
Elgar- cello concerto 3rd movement
Walton- Belshazzar’s Feast
Vaughn Williams- ‘O taste and see’
Purcell- Dido’s Lament
Thomas Morley- English madrigals
Sumsion- Magnificat in G
Poulenc- Cello sonata
Debussy- violin sonata
Howells- Magnificat Gloucester service
Janacek- On an Overgrown Path
Shostakovich- Fugue no.7 in A
Having started the cello much later to most other musicians, I found myself battling the fear of performing at the same time as facing an insecure self-image that often comes with being a 12 year old. I believe this made the issue far greater than it would’ve been, had I been performing at an earlier age. It has, nonetheless, forced me to address the way I deal with my anxiety on and off stage and encouraged me to read much more into the subject.
What is performance anxiety for you?
Performance anxiety for me is waking up on the day of a performance and being so terrified that you are unable to move. It is going over and over in your head all the possible worst-case scenarios and the consequences of performing badly. It’s being desperate to impress people and to receive reassurance that you’re doing OK. It’s trying to calm your breathing but you end up making it more rapid. Then it’s playing as though you have no connection between your mind and your arms and even less connection between your mind and your instrument.
Performing feels like a mad free-for-all. Every man is for himself as I push through this Bach suite movement, making a hundred mistakes a minute working to the end. And then there’s after; the beating yourself up for being so anxious and losing security and control, feeling as though it was never all worth it and will never be again. But what is important to remember, though difficult to believe, is that these are all just thoughts.
We are not doomed. We deserve to play the way we dream about and share music with people on the the highest level that we a capable. We can hold ourselves and forget ourselves at the same time and we can find the benefits to this alongside.
The philosopher Kierkegaard had an existentialist theory which I think can help us understand the way we perceive music in performance. His idea was that people need a deep satisfaction and relationship with themselves, the energy of the universe (God etc.) and the core of their being. It is only after that that they can enjoy the materials (aesthetic) and relationships on earth without depending on them. We are all guilty about having a huge desire to impress people, but the issue is that we make this the centre of our thoughts around a performance and become greedy for praise and recognition.
If we think about Kierkegaard’s theory, connect with ourselves through being mindful and agree that whether or not our performance goes well, we will still feel at one with ourselves (and music!), we suddenly see a performance completely differently. It’s purpose isn’t to satisfy our needs as individuals for recognition, it is for us to connect with the power music has and our ability to give this power to our audience as a gift. It is much less diabolical to hold this at the centre of our thinking. Then, be it praise, opportunity or reward, we can enjoy these parts to a performance without relying on them.
This theory is not so difficult to explain or understand, but how can it be applied? Many books have helped me shape a rusty but improving bank of coping strategies alongside experience and talking to different people about their opinions and experiences. The most important way to start is to talk about it. Just like any mental health issue (people dislike the terminology but it is what it is!) performance anxiety can be improved by talking to people. One of many reasons for this is it can make you feel much less alone- almost all musicians experience performance anxiety to some degree and certainly have a lot to say about it. Another reason for this is it can increase awareness of the issue of performance anxiety in the arts industry and encourage more people to talk about it. Certainly raising the issue with your teacher can hold enormous benefits, but anyone you trust can be a worthy listener.
But even once you’ve altered your mindset towards performing and you are happy that everything will be OK, how do you manage the sometimes inevitable symptoms that we experience before a performance? The most important thing to remember here is that we can still perform well when we are nervous. There is nothing stopping us even when feeling sick and shaky- we can concentrate and there is no reason the physical emotions should overpower us. It is easy to develop a ‘fear of the fear’ because we associate the physical sensations with a bad performance, but there’s no reason for us to. We are still in control. People often talk about being prepared as being a very important part of combating anxiety but I contrary this and say that practising performing when you’re under-prepared is incredibly beneficial. Of course, the anxiety involved in this is great but it is likely that you will emerge feeling much better about the situation. The reason is that your confidence increases as your mind believes ‘well if I did that when I was so unprepared, I can do anything!’
The final part to thinking and discovering more about performance anxiety is forgiving yourself for failure. You are on an incredible road, learning at every part of it and finding ways to manage anxiety is just a part of the bigger picture. It cannot be solved overnight, but you will find that you become more and more aware of yourself and your purpose as a musician. These ideas I have shared are not an exhaustive list and I will collect many resources below for you to explore. What works for me may not work for you and I am a long way from an answer. I still can get cripplingly nervous but I try to distance myself from my thoughts and turn the focus for the music. I think to take any of this on board you must first ask yourself why. Why music and why love and why faith? The answer is purpose and if music gives you an enormous sense of purpose, you are not destined to sabotage your communication and expression and you will, in time, find a solution.
“There is nothing with which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of doing and becoming”
This is an amazing, short book complied by many famous classical musicians- great short term relief!
For changing your perception:Life Is Not A Journey
A classic, but it really helped me to start thinking:
How do we feel inspired in the world at the moment?
Fantastic book for liberally exploring faith:
Strings are to a musician like ballet shoes are to a dancer. Just as each dancer is very different and requires different size and softness of shoes, every cello is vastly different and requires different strings to compliment the resonance of the instrument. My cello has an especially bright and powerful quality, especially on the A string, but it also has the tendency to sound brash. It also often has projection difficulties on the low strings, particularly in high positions. I knew more could be done to improve the sound and I started to think about trying new strings in order to address this issue.
With this in mind, I got in contact with Larsen some weeks ago, eager to try new strings on my cello. Having been a devotee to their standard cello strings for quite a while, I was hearing great things about their Magnacore strings and was desperate to give them a try. I’d been reassured how balanced the string sounds were across the cello and, knowing my cello was in desperate need of this balance, was excited to try them.
Suffice it so say, I was not disappointed! I changed the A and D strings first and noticed an immediate increase in the sound quality. The strings needed virtually no playing in time and adapted to my cello immediately. A strings on my cello often have the tendency to sound increasingly ‘brash’ on my cello, but the Magnacore A string had a sweetness that I was convinced my cello wasn’t capable of producing. The D string matched the A both in resonance and quality of sound and was so buoyant to play. Finally I have found strings that create equal tones on both A and D, I have struggled for so long with a brash A string and a muted D string, thanks to these strings I feel my strings compliment each other and my playing.
I later replaced my existing G and C strings with the Magnacore C and G and, once again, the effect was immediate. The strings were so much more responsive on my cello and the resonance was electric. I did find the strings to feel quite a bit stiffer and not entirely flexible under the fingers, though they tuned up easily and maintained tuning with no issues. In saying this, it was as I expected that the bottom two strings took a few days to play in and feel totally settled. This created an short period of discomfort, but it quickly subsided and, once settled, my cello produced resonant and expressive sonorities that were unprecedented but certainly welcome!
Proof of the strings’ transformation of my cello came about when I played the Bach Suite no.3 in my cello lesson last week. My Teacher immediately mentioned how much she thought my sound had improved. I mentioned that I’d recently changed my strings to Magnacore and she was fascinated at how much of a difference they had made to my sound in such a short space of time.
It’s such a joy and a blessing to find strings finally that work with my cello and not against it. I’ll certainly be using Magnacore again and will be intrigued to witness their longevity. They cannot come more highly recommended!
More about Hattie…
Hattie has given solo recitals at the London Charterhouse, Lichfield Festival, Lansdowne Club in Mayfair, Shire Hall in Hereford and Manchester Cathedral. She has also performed in masterclasses with eminent professors, such as Johannes Goritzki, Hannah Roberts, Alexander Baillie and William Bruce and was invited by Guy Johnston to take part in a masterclass with him at the Barbican as part of the events marking the BBC Young Musician final in 2016. Last summer Hattie was selected to attend the Quattro Corde festival in Italy and performed many solo and chamber concerts during the festival.
Hattie is a member of the award winning piano trio, The Odora Trio, and has performed with them at The Charterhouse, Concerts for Craswall in Herefordshire, St Peter’s Eaton Square and Southwark Cathedral to name but a few. The trio has recently been accepted on the Wye Valley Music Summer Residency with Daniel Tong this summer.
Hattie has developed an interest into the life and works of Sir Edward Elgar, is a member of the Elgar Society and writes an online blog about both Elgar and life as a musician.
We are participating in Project ZERO. The entire Sonderborg area is involved in the vision of creating a CO2 neutral growth area before 2029. Larsen Strings has been awarded Silver Certification.
Our aim is to work toward sustainable solutions at Larsen Strings. As a company we have chosen to support the environment by upgrading to the CO2 neutral energy plan ‘Medvind’ as supplied by SE’s Danish Land Wind Turbines.
Elholm 6, 6400 Sønderborg, Denmark.
Larsen Strings A/S has chosen to support the environment by upgrading to the CO2 neutral energy plan ‘Medvind’ as supplied by SE’s Danish Land Wind Turbines. Awarded Silver Certification as a corporate participant in Project ZERO (Sønderborg).